Trip to Vietnam Offers Sobering Glimpse at War
LEXINGTON, Va., May 6, 2013 – Six VMI cadets had both their circadian rhythms and their cultural assumptions challenged by a spring furlough trip to Vietnam led by Jim Adams ’71, director of VMI’s Writing Center, and Col. Dave Wall, a retired Marine Corps officer who served as an artillery lieutenant in Vietnam from 1968 to 1969. Four of the cadets on the trip – John Bolen ’14, Nicholas Bruno ’13, Benjamin Cross ’13, and Nathan Meade ’13 – had almost all of their expenses paid by the Olmsted Foundation, a group that sponsors overseas cultural immersion opportunities for commissioning cadets.
The cadets’ journey began with a 2:45 a.m. departure from VMI on Friday, March 8, and ended with their arrival in Ho Chi Minh City, the former Saigon, at 10:30 p.m. the next day, Saturday, after more than 24 hours in transit. Before the exhausted travelers could go to bed, they had the task of going out to buy bottled water, as the tap water in Vietnam is notoriously risky for Westerners’ stomachs.
The food, though, was a pleasant surprise, with a mix of Asian, Western, and French cuisines. Adams recalled “outrageous” pastries such as baguettes and croissants, a legacy of the French colonial period, while Cross mentioned elephant ear fish, served in the Mekong Delta region.
Reminders of the Vietnam War were not hard to find, even almost four decades after the fall of Saigon. Meade and Cross spoke of craters made by crashing B-52 bombers, still 30 feet across and 10 to 15 feet deep. The war was particularly palpable at the Cu Chi tunnels northwest of Saigon, which were once used by the Viet Cong to hide from the French and later the Americans.
“Everything was really eerie,” said Meade of the well-hidden tunnels. “You can’t imagine walking through the forest and at any point people can pop up out of nowhere.” Adding to the surreal atmosphere, he noted, was the constant barrage of fire from AK-47s at a firing range nearby.
At the tunnels, the cadets and their leaders were reminded, somewhat harshly, that the Vietnam War still rests uneasily in America’s memory.
“It was hard for all of us,” said Adams. “Americans are accustomed to being the good guys of the world. We lost there. There were lots of terribly phrased, misspelled [signs about] the war at the tunnels, and it was always about the American imperialists. It was sobering.”
Cross added, “I think that’s one of the reasons [the Olmsted Foundation] sent us. We need to be able to look at [the Vietnam War] from both sides. We could have been wrong in this instance, or possibly this is how they represent their information. …Do we have our own propaganda?”
Meade agreed, calling the signs at the tunnels “kind of a reality check.”
The atmosphere at the “Hanoi Hilton,” where American prisoners of war were kept, was similarly somber. Adams recalled a room done up to look as if it had been occupied by Arizona Sen. John McCain, perhaps the most famous American POW of the Vietnam era. Also gruesome, though, was the guillotine, a relic of the facility’s origin as a French prison. That instrument of death was in active use up until the early 1950s, said Meade.
But not all of the trip was focused on the past. In the evenings, the cadets had freedom to go out and explore the Vietnam of today – and in at least one instance, they found someone not unlike themselves. Meade recalled going out at night in Ho Chi Minh City when he and others met up with a young woman about their age who was eager to practice her English so she could go to college in the United States.
“We sat and talked with her for about two or three hours,” said Meade. “We easily learned as much or more about the culture just talking to her. … Even though cultures can be vastly different, people can be so similar.”
– Mary Price